The Dark Reality of Being a Brand Influencer

Culture Entertainment Features/Columns

Originally published for Broadly as part of my “Extremely Online” monthly column.

Not long ago, a viral story sent the internet into a frenzy: Mommy blogger Katie Bower expressed that her six-year-old son receives the least “likes” on Instagram out of all of her children. In a caption attached to his birthday weekend post, Bower wrote “It killed me inside. His photos never got as many likes. Never got comments. From a statistical point of view, he wasn’t as popular with everyone out there. Maybe part of that was the pictures just never hit the algorithm right.”

The backlash was swift, with followers of the blog quickly condemning what was viewed as an open solicitation for post engagement. Entertainment reporter Keri Lumm aptly summed it up as “the No. 1 reason why your kids should never be your personal brand”—Bower’s post was soon after archived.

“Unfortunately, from a business side we hear ‘keep posting the content that brings in the most engagement,’” Bower told Today. “I personally hope my actions show that I am going to keep posting what I love no matter the numbers and that, as parents, we have to teach our kids their value isn’t in online approval. Our real lives are 100 percent better than a tiny photo can portray.”

In a sense, she is correct. Bower’s incident is par for the course in the life of the modern-day influencer.

The term “influencer” is not one that is borne out of this current zeitgeist. In fact, its nascency was driven by marketing innovator Michael Blatter in the early 90s. Blatter utilized “Trend Influence Marketing,” as he coined it, to bring in Camel cigarettes into his network of nightclubs. In a 33-page document that is commonly referred to as an industry standard in many marketing classes, Blatter outlined an insidious strategy of placing specific brands of cigarettes in the hands of bartenders across the bustling party scene, unwittingly turning them into brand evangelists as they exchanged free sticks of tobacco as quid pro quo with patrons for tips throughout the evening.

Fast forward nearly three decades and the strategy has become more quantifiable through mediums like Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.

Some of this can be accomplished by what amounts to none other than a modern-era celebrity endorsement: Most of the Kardashian-Jenner clan, for example, quote six figures per Instagram post. Influencers come in the form of power social media users: People who have enmeshed and established themselves within digital communities—whether it be makeup, fitness, or lifestyle—and whose corresponding growth in following has a bona fide timbre that has made it fertile ground for lucrative collaborations.

“For people who are used to already showing everything, they can place themselves in a position to make a brand part of their story, part of what’s authentic to them,” Alexia Clincy, executive director of Capitalize Social tells Broadly.For those who have integrated into their markets seamlessly and early, the returns have been astronomical–openly rumored to be in the seven figures for some of the biggest stars to live aspirational lifestyles of people’s wildest fantasies. As it predictably goes with any glamorous new emerging bubble, being an influencer has drawn a rapidly-expanding influx of participants, creating a gold rush of its own.

In fact, the brand-influencer model has now nearly inverted, with individuals actively marketing themselves as products to brands and PR companies; and using their following and engagement as a barometer for their rates.

With the near-ubiquitous accessibility of platforms like Instagram, the even playing field has given way for the creation of tiers within their ranks. Influencers no longer just come in a standard issue, there are now micro-influencers and even nano-influencers, each with their own respective offerings to provide a company’s marketing strategy.

“Instagram is almost a walking advertisement,” Clincy points out about the highly-curated nature of posts on the application. “It’s like watching TV with the commercials on now. It can be a regular person’s post who didn’t get paid for anything, and everything just looks like an ad.”

Aspirational content, akin to thousand-dollar Vogue spreads or Travel & Leisure editorials, bank on creating a sense of fantasy. However, in the current digital age, the return on investment for creating this illusion of everyday luxury may not be high for everyone.

The returns of paid monetization on Youtube, for example, find that 96.5 percent of users don’t make enough to cross the US poverty line according to Bloomberg.

“The brands now are like ‘I can give away product’ and that’s perfectly fine to that person who has 2,500 followers. They will take all the products in the world and they will post about it [for free],” Clincy explains. “They’re going to go above and beyond without needing to be paid…it’s less of a dice roll and it’s almost more trusted than some bigger people that you’re spending a lot of money on to post something.”

Depending on who you ask, this inundation of newcomers has created a disruption to the delicate ecosystem of already established micro-influencers, who are also responding to the constantly adjusting algorithms.

In 2018, beauty influencer Destiny Godley announced she was closing her eponymous Youtube channel of over 370K followers due to the engagement drastically declining despite repeated attempts to create consistent content. Other influencers have taken alternate routes and adapted their brand to meet the need of the emerging class: Mattie James, for example, expanded her lifestyle brand to include courses such as #PitchPlease, a masterclass that provides the guide for “successfully pitching brands and getting paid partnerships.”

“People started asking me questions about the opportunities I was getting in my blog and Instagram comments,” James tells Broadly. “They would also ask me in person when I spoke on panels or at conferences as well. What I realized is that there isn’t a lot of resources for influencers and that many people in similar positions weren’t willing to share how to make it. But I’ve always had the kind of mindset where just because I show you how to win, doesn’t mean I lose. It’s a win-win for all of us.”

It is undeniable that social media has undergone surreptitious corporatization, shifting from a freewheeling communal exchange to a shrewd assessment of the value of our individual brands. With that transition also came a savvier consumer: Reports consistently show that blind faith in influencer endorsement is declining. This injection of healthy skepticism doesn’t come without precedent—coming on the heels of fiascos such as the heavily promoted Fyre Festival, where the likes of Kylie Jenner, Hailey Baldwin, and Emily Ratajkowski all created buzz for a music event that ultimately was a chaotic nightmare.

A report from Bazaarvoice indicated that 47 percent of consumers in EMEA countries were “fatigued by repetitive influencers” who were all on the same marketing campaigns with similar copy, amongst other concerns such as purchasing fake followers. A 2017 report from DealSpotr took a look at the US, highlighting that 52 percent of millennials were beginning to trust influencers less. In other words, the grassroots feel that influencer marketing was supposed to employ is now being exposed for what it is: A cash grab.

As we move towards embracing the transactional nature of social media, it’s important to note what made the early influencers of the 90s club scene successful—the perceived authenticity of interpersonal connections. While follower count may or may not equate to influence, there’s something to be said for having a niche audience that invests in the influencer they follow.

James concurs: “Influencer marketing is becoming more popular day by day, so if I can help make better influencers along the way, all that does is add more value to the market. And who doesn’t want that?”

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